The Other Problem with Unpaid Internships

by Cathy Vandewater | February 09, 2012

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It goes without saying that unpaid internships offer no salaries or benefits.

But did you know that unpaid interns have no basic protections under labor laws?

This is something a lot of kids learn the hard way. I certainly did. I once worked a completely unpaid internship for three months, mainly for one special reward:  a reference (upon successful completion of the internship) from the owner of the company, an influential film producer.

Things were going great, until Intern Appreciation Night (oh, the irony), when the owner made a very public and very physical pass at me. It happened in full view of several employees, but no one wanted to go to bat for an intern, at the possible cost of their standing with the boss. I very quickly got the freeze out at work, and, with no reference from uncomfortable coworkers and nothing to show for three months of work, I quit.

Friends told me later I should have taken some kind of legal action, but a little research revealed it's not possible. Without damages (as in, unearned wages), there's really no way of quantifying the devastating hits in time and energy you take when an unpaid internship goes awry.

And when it comes to dealing with harassment on the job (should you choose to stay), you're at the mercy of a kindly HR department. Interns are not considered legal employees, so the company isn't liable for their treatment. Most companies, I'd assume, would rather not rock the boat by investigating complaints. In most cases, harassed or discriminated interns tend to cut their losses and simply leave the position empty handed.

This, incidentally, works just fine for predatory types, because, at the head of an internship program, they have access to a constant stream of young, vulnerable college kids. Kids they know will be much more likely to slink away than to call foul on bad treatment.

Just one more reason to rethink the unpaid internship system.

Read More:
Are Unpaid Internships Fair?
Record Number of Discrimination Charges Reported in 2011
Room For Debate: Do Unpaid Internships Exploit College Students?

--Cathy Vandewater,

Filed Under: Job Search | Salary & Benefits | Workplace Issues

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